Liberty Memorial rededicated

Renovations bring back original luster of World War I memorial

? The Liberty Memorial looks proud again.

A flag-waving crowd of 8,000 welcomed the nation’s largest World War I memorial back from disrepair and neglect on Saturday with a patriotic ceremony punctuated by the roar of F-15 Eagle fighters.

The guests included three World War I veterans, born before the airplane was invented.

The memorial has been scrubbed clean, and its crumbling base once seen as a safety hazard has been fixed.

Saturday’s rededication was attended by representatives of Belgium, France, Italy, Great Britain and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers much like the gathering of Allied generals for the site’s dedication in 1921.

Then, as now, “they are with us there, side by side,” Myers said.

The Kansas City native said today’s servicemen and women “display the same determination as the doughboys in World War I.”

Myers said the same Indiana limestone used to refurbish the memorial was being used to repair Pentagon damage from Sept. 11.

Myers drew parallels between the allied cooperation that won World War I and the cooperation between the United States and its allies since Sept. 11.

British Consul General Robert Culshaw said his country and the United States fought together throughout the 20th century.

“The same will be true throughout the 21st century, because we remember what liberty means” and what it costs to defend it, he said.

While about 126,000 Americans died during the war, most of the war’s 8 million dead were European. Still, the allied speakers on Saturday acknowledged the decisive impact that U.S. soldiers had on the war.

“France will never forget the sacrifice of 120,000 American soldiers who gave their lives on its soil,” said French Maj. Gen. Daniel Bastien.

When fund-raising began for the memorial in 1919, Kansas City residents gave $2.5 million in just 10 days. For the site’s dedication in 1921, more than 200,000 people jammed the memorial’s expansive grounds, with some even sitting atop Union Station across the street.

But as first-hand memories of the war faded, so did the memorial. The museum on its grounds drew visitors steadily until it was closed in 1994, but the rest of the memorial had fallen into disrepair. Cigarette smoke stained the murals in the museum, chunks of limestone were missing from the tower’s base, which was so cracked it was considered a safety threat.

Many of the people who turned out for the rededication remembered the scruffy-looking memorial of recent years, and were glad to see it fixed. The project will cost $90 million once an expanded museum is completed underneath the tower’s base.

But on Saturday, the museum reopened in two buildings at the tower’s base. It’s not nearly as big as the one planned for later, but it still impressed Eleanor Ball, 67, whose father fought in World War I.

Ball said she loved the maps that showed several battlefields, including the Argonnes Forest, where her father fought. Seeing the maps and other artifacts from the war, “I was really able to visualize it,” she said.

Dick Scoggins, 51, who was a Marine in Vietnam, said soldiers in later wars felt a kinship with those who fought in other wars. Their bond of defending the country links them through generations, he said.

“They did it back then, 80 or 90 years ago, and they’re doing it today,” he said.

George Chichula, Belton, said he remembered meeting World War I veterans at a retirement home near his parents’ farm. Some of them still had scars from combat, or still coughed from their run-ins with poison gas.

Chichula, who served five years in the Air Force during the Cold War, said younger generations did not seem to have a connection to the wars of earlier years.

“I don’t think they have a sense of World War II, even,” he said.